Gabe Newell tried gold farming in World of Warcraft to test a theory about games

Gold farming in WoW let Gabe test the idea that games could be 'productivity platforms'

It’s hard to overstate the amount of impact Steam has had on what we think of today as PC gaming, and a big element of the shift it’s brought about has been tied to its community market – using Steam’s market, users can buy and sell virtual items that they’ve generated inside their games. In a recent interview, Newell explains that he tested his ideas about what games could be by spending time as a gold farmer in World of Warcraft.

“We were always used to thinking about games as entertainment experiences, but then we started thinking of them as productivity platforms,” Newell says in an interview that appears in Edge #344. “As a sort of proof-of-concept I decided to be a gold farmer in World of Warcraft for a while.”

Newell says he quickly began to earn $20 USD (about £16) per hour at gold farming, which was “a spectacular wage” for most parts of the world, and the insight he gained from the experience led to Valve looking for ways to make gameplay something that was productive, that had value.

That’s when Newell says Valve started focusing on the Steam Workshop, which began as a way to share custom items for Team Fortress 2 but eventually expanded to include support for just about any game.

“[We were] trying to think of everybody as a content creator,” Newell said. “There’s this story of the parents that called us up because they thought we were selling their kid drugs. What happened was PayPal pingde the parents and said, ‘Your kid is exceeding our limits on how much money they can put into PayPal per month. They’re probably selling stolen goods or drugs, because there’s no other explanation.'”

The actual commodity being exchanged? Digital hats.

“So the parents called us up and I said: ‘He makes items on the Team Fortress Workshop,” Newell said. “He’s making $500,000 a year.’ That to us was an indication that this was a helpful way of thinking of games – as platforms – and it’s informed all of our decisions about multiplayer games subsequently.”

Just think – what might the world look like now if GabeN hadn’t been so good at gold farming?